Rice: Time to support democracy through free trade

Condoleezza Rice takes a break from her rumored campaign for the bottom slot of the Republican ticket to push for passage of the free trade agreement with Colombia. In today’s Wall Street Journal, Rice argues that the agreement has much more economic benefit for the US in its efforts to compete in Colombian markets, helping to protect American jobs. More fundamentally, Rice says that we have to reward Alvaro Uribe for his efforts to reform and reaffirm Colombian democracy:

Colombia is a functioning democracy. The fact that our friend remains imperfect, and that it still faces overwhelming challenges, should lead us not to withdraw our support, but to increase it – to help Colombia’s legal and democratic institutions function more accountably, more effectively and more transparently. And that is exactly what this trade agreement would do.

This agreement is also a far better deal for U.S. workers than the one they have now. At present, more than 90% of Colombian goods enter the U.S. duty-free, while our exports to Colombia face tariffs of up to 35%. This agreement would level the playing field for U.S. workers, enabling them to send the products of their labor to Colombia on the same terms that Colombians now send theirs to us. The result, according to the U.S. International Trade Commission, would be an annual increase of approximately $1.1 billion in U.S. exports to Colombia.

Beyond our economic interests, this agreement will also further our national interest in a free and peaceful hemisphere. Some in the Americas today want to shove the region toward authoritarianism. This system has failed before, and it will fail again. The only question is how much harm it will cause in the meantime, and in large part that depends on us – on whether we support the vast majority of people in the Americas today who believe, as we do, that security and social justice are best achieved through liberty and the rule of law, free and fair trade, and responsible democratic governance. Colombia shares these values, and we have invested billions of dollars in our ally’s success. How could we possibly retreat now?

The fate of this agreement raises even larger questions: How does the U.S. treat its friends, especially when they are under pressure and attack? Will we remain engaged as a global leader or will we pull back unilaterally? Will we define our role in the world by confidence in our own principles or by capitulation to unfounded fears? The eyes of many nations, particularly those in our own hemisphere, are upon us, and let no one think that the choices we make will not echo around the globe.

In six years, the Uribe government’s actions have shown both promise and results. With the rest of the region pushing leftwards, Uribe has managed to keep free markets and private property protected to a much greater degree than we could have predicted in 2002. While violence against unionists has not disappeared, it has sharply declined and is proceeding in the right direction.

That may be a secondary consideration at this point. New evidence shows Ecuador and Venezuela not just sympathetic to the terrorists of FARC but actively supporting them. In the last six years, Hugo Chavez has turned into a huge headache for US policy in South America, using his oil profits to fund socialism throughout Latin America and attempting provocations on a regular basis. He has helped push the region to the left and made it more hostile towards the US.

Now is not the time to alienate allies in the region. We need to bring our friends closer to us and show Latin America the benefits of operating free markets in a free trade zone. If we reject Colombian efforts now, we will lose a great deal of the leverage we have remaining in South America and demonstrate that free markets mean very little to the US — which will play right into the hands of Chavez and his allies, and doom the region to poverty and economic collapse in the long run.

Update: Alvaro, not Alfonso.  I’ve corrected it in the text above.